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As North Carolina law enforcement agencies work through their backlog of more than 16,000 rape kits, they are finding DNA matches in a federal database that has helped them charge and convict several serial rapists.

Not everyone who has survived a sexual assault wants to involve the police. Not everyone is ready to think about that yet.

The aftermath of a sexual assault can be a confusing time. Generally, you need to see a nurse within four days after the assault to receive proper medical care and preserve forensic evidence, but the sooner the better.

But does this mean that you’re automatically pressing charges? No. 

North Carolina and other states have an option available to those who have been sexually assaulted that’s called an “anonymous kit.” This means an assault victim can see a sexual assault nurse examiner, or SANE nurse, at a hospital or a certified community-based center for an exam but not provide information to law enforcement. During the exam, the nurse documents injuries sustained in the assault and collects evidence that could be used in a future criminal trial.

Not every hospital has a SANE nurse, and state law does not require that hospitals employ one. These nurses study and train for dozens of hours to learn how to help people who are sexually assaulted. 

For example, most people who visit the Solace Center in Raleigh after an assault are undecided about whether they want to involve law enforcement, said Lauren Schwartz, director of sexual assault services and the director the center, located at InterAct Family Safety and Empowerment Center in Raleigh.

Schwartz said it is entirely possible to collect the forensic evidence and give the victim some breathing room in the aftermath of such a traumatic event before reporting to law enforcement.

Lauren Schwartz is director of the Solace Center at Interact in Raleigh. File photo by Alicia Carter / Carolina Public Press

Q: What is an “anonymous” kit?

“All this means is you are anonymous to law enforcement,” Schwartz said. 

This means law enforcement won’t know an assault took place or that there is any forensic evidence related to it, Schwartz said. Because law enforcement doesn’t know about the assault, it cannot count the assault in annual statistics reported to the federal government.

Q: Why could someone want an anonymous kit?

Deciding to see a sexual assault nurse examiner is a big decision to begin with. Patients who are undecided or wary of law enforcement might not want to talk to police right away, or at all, Schwartz said.

“Some are afraid of what will happen if they do report,” Schwartz said. 

Schwartz said that someone who has been sexually assaulted may fear that information will get out of their control or that they won’t have control over how to tell friends and family.

Some patients might be in the middle of college exams, need to secure their safety or are afraid of what their attacker will do, she added.

An anonymous kit ensures the victim can be treated medically to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, said John Somerindyke, a former lieutenant with Fayetteville Police Department.

“If the survivor is ready at some point in the future to have an investigation conducted, they are the one in control and they are the one who decides to get law enforcement involved,” he said.

Q: Does the DNA in anonymous kits get tested?

No, Schwartz said. DNA in anonymous kits does not get tested, ever. State policies also say anonymous kits are not opened unless the victim decides at a later date to involve law enforcement.

If someone later decides to talk with law enforcement, then DNA will be tested if it meets the criteria.

Q: What happens to other forensic evidence in the kit?

If law enforcement doesn’t know about an assault, they cannot investigate, Schawartz said.

“Delaying a report to law enforcement can potentially destroy other forms of evidence,” Schwartz said. “There could be evidence at a crime scene, or maybe camera footage, or evidence from a perpetrator.”

This may include items such as bedsheets, carpet or anything else that might have touched DNA during the assault. 

Q: Can minors have an anonymous kit?

It depends upon where the crime is reported.

Crimes committed against minors must be reported to police, Schwartz said. This includes when a minor attacks another minor. In North Carolina, a minor is anyone under the age of 18.

“Based on state law, that would have to be reported to law enforcement, and if there was a kit collected, that would have to be tested,” Schwartz said.

The only exemption, she said, is if the patient approaches a rape crisis center, such as the Solace Center, for help.

Q: How often are anonymous kits filed?

The precise yearly number is unknown. However, the best figure we have is based on the examination of North Carolina’s decadeslong backlog of untested rape kits.

Of 16,234 untested rape kits in North Carolina, 1,385, or 8.5 percent, were filed as anonymous.

Q: What is the statute of limitations for sexual assault?

All felonies in North Carolina have no statute of limitations. Prosecutors can decide to pursue a sexual assault case at any time, even if it occured years ago.

Some rapists are even charged and convicted decades after the crime occurred.

Q: If you have an anonymous kit, how long do you have to decide what to do?

If people who have experienced a sexual assault want to qualify to receive reimbursement from the state’s crime victims fund, they  must report the crime to law enforcement within 72 hours. The fund only pays for medical care and loss of wages, not property damage or for pain and suffering.

In North Carolina, hospitals are not allowed to bill victims of rape for their sexual assault exams, although it does happen.

However, someone may decide at first to make the kit anonymous and decide much later to report the incident to law enforcement. There is no statute of limitations on reporting the crime.

Q: How long does the state store anonymous kits?

State instructions for submitting anonymous kits say the state will keep the kits in a warehouse indefinitely.

“As long as things were collected and preserved properly, the kit should be stable and able to sit on that shelf for a long time,” Schwartz said.

State paperwork says while law enforcement will not know your personal information, the information is tracked by a state warehouse that stores the kits.

Q: I had an anonymous kit. Now I’m ready to talk to law enforcement. What do I do?

Notify the law enforcement agency where the assault occurred and sign a consent form allowing the agency to access your kit. That agency then contacts the state warehouse, which retrieves the kit and provides it to that agency. After that, the agency can send your kit in for testing.

Schwartz said her agency hangs onto anonymous kits for a couple of weeks before turning them in to the state on the chance a patient decides to report to law enforcement after the initial exam.

“The more support a survivor has after an exam — and they are getting that experience with a nurse that’s very trauma informed — if they feel supported, then making that leap to (talking to) law enforcement is a little bit easier,” Schwartz said.

Q: I’d like more information and help. Whom can I call?

Consider calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673, provided by RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. The network offers assistance 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is free and confidential.

Kate Martin

Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.